Crazy Larry demanded to know recently how I remember so many events from my childhood. His own childhood is a big gray blur, he said; there was nothing to remember in all those hours playing alone while Mommy cage-danced at the club.
In the same way that our radio and TV broadcasts will apparently bounce around forever  in the physical universe, many things that fragment and grow faint in the mind don’t disappear entirely. They can be retrieved, if you have the right equipment and can find a quiet place to listen.
At the rehearsal dinner before a recent wedding, I sat next to my cousin Shirl and her husband, Hank, and was overcome with childhood memories long forgotten: Attending Shirl’s graduation from Southern Illinois University (a master’s in piano, so lovely and impractical in such a place) and being allowed to take photos with Hank’s professional cameras. Mopping the floors of Hank’s photography studio after his partner ran off with their money and he tried to keep the business afloat. Feeling sorrier when Hank burned down part of his mother’s house warming frozen pipes with a blowtorch, and, later, using my toy metal detector to look for Shirl’s wedding ring in the charred wreckage of their own house after Hank had thawed their pipes. They took me to a Buckminster Fuller lecture, and tricked me into eating beef tongue, and lived on a fallow farm not far from SIU’s Touch of Nature Environmental Center. In complicated ways, they’re important to my sense memory of the Sixties.
As we chatted, I remembered one event so clearly it was like epiphany. My mom and I had gone to my aunt’s house—Shirl’s mom and mine were sisters—and Shirl and Hank sneaked me a comic book called Primal Man? Most of my comic books at home were hand-me-downs from my older sister: Richie Rich, Caspar, Little Dot, Little Lotta, and Wendy the Good Little Witch. This was something new.
The front cover said it was “Volume 6” of a series called The Crusaders, and it showed an enraged mastodon attacking a caveman about to fall off a cliff into lava. The artwork was grotesque, garish, and violent. The back cover listed profiles of the two main characters: Tim Clark, “Ex-Green Beret, he met someone in the jungles of Viet Nam who changed his life,” and James Carter, “Ex-crime boss, he ruled the streets in Chicago, until he met his match.” Cool, I thought and crept behind the couch, out of the gaze of my mother, to learn how a Green Beret would deal with a mastodon. (“Caution: This set of books could change your life,” the comic book said.)
Greedily, I began to read. By page eight, the battle between Borg and the mastodon was revealed to be a movie in production. Our two heroes have gone to the set to meet their old chum the lead actor, handsome under his caveman mask. They bring with them “Dr. Lind,” who tells the movie’s director, producer and moneymen (from the “International Geographic Commission”), “I believe evolution is one of the cruelest hoaxes ever invented!” Their responses are, variously, “What the?”, “Gasp!” and “ Hey…who is this joker?” When the film’s science advisor says, “Dr. Lind…you don’t believe that God created the universe, do you?”, Lind testifies that he does, and someone says, “I bet he even believes in Mickey Mouse…and that wierd [sic] little old tooth fairy! Haw Haw Haw!”
The grownups in my aunt’s living room were droning to each other in the uninteresting way they do, but then I heard Shirl ask my mom offhandedly, “You and Oronte want to come to a dinner tonight?”
“To dinner? Or a dinner?” my mom asked suspiciously.
“What kind of a dinner?”
“Oh, it’s for our church,” Shirl said. “We’ll have a speaker, and it’ll be fun. It’s at the student center at SIU.”
In the comic book, the crusaders were working out on godless Hollywood types (“I thought we’d go out swinging tonight with some chicks!”). The battle begins to turn in their favor: “I can't believe it…you prayed to get rid of Dexter…and he’s going out the door…that’s really heavy!” Despite a minor setback (“Come on, Tim! He was born in a stable and died on a cross…do we have to go through this Jesus trip?”), they save their actor friend and get the director to admit that his film is based on the falsehood of evolution.
In a twist at the end, however, the director says, “I’m going to continue making evolution films.” The crusaders respond, “Even though it’s brainwashing and damaging these kids…many will lose their souls because of these films.” “I know!” the man says. “Then what in Heaven’s name would possess you to do such a thing?” “You gentlemen serve your god…and I in turn will serve mine…his name is ‘ money’,,,and I need all I can get!”
My mom, thin and athletic-looking, was a chowhound and especially loved a free meal, and while she must have known what Shirl’s offer was about, she probably figured that all they wanted was her time. She had nothing but time, so who was outfoxing whom?
The comic ended with a call to action on the inside back cover. “THE BIG LIE IS BEING PUSHED WORLD WIDE IN THE UNIVERSITIES,” it said. “NOW YOU MUST DECIDE…WHICH WAY WILL YOU GO?”
“What’s on the menu?” my mom said.
Dinner—which came only after a series of announcements, introductions, opening prayers, pleas for money, pleas for membership, and more prayers—was Chicken-Fried Something with lots of white gravy that smelled rich as organ meat, and a ball of mashed potatoes smothered in more white gravy that had slopped over onto the green beans. Bullyboys in three-piece suits locked the only exits and stood in front of the doors with folded arms. A speaker got up to testify, then another, then a third, and as I finished my lemon bar, members of the audience began holding both their hands in the air.
I looked around curiously and wondered if Shirl and Hank had known this would happen. Shirl held her hands up in surrender and had her eyes closed so tightly it looked as if she were trying to imagine something. People around us began to speak in tongues, and a man a few seats down fell backwards onto the floor and began thrashing, which gave a dozen others the same idea. Someone up front was being cured of cancer by being shouted at, and the sound system squealed with feedback. The sick woman was held up by two men, and when the preacher gave her a rabbit-punch to the solar plexus, they let her fall writhing to the floor. Thank you, Jesus!
Even in the incredible din of that long banquet room, where I imagined the SIU biology club might hold its awards dinners, I could hear louder noises—people bellowing angrily in the hallway and pounding on the outside of the doors with their fists, demanding to come in. The scared looks of the bullyboys scared me more than I already was. Maybe it was the Devil, I thought. One of the guards made the mistake of opening a door just a crack to see what was going on, and I caught a glimpse of a dozen transvestites in lots of makeup. There was a small scuffle with cursing on both sides, and the bullyboys determinedly slapped hands out of the way and slammed the door again.
A couple of hours later we were finally allowed to leave. My mom said to Shirl and Hank, “Oo-wee, that was something else. Thanks a lot.” But everyone hugged and said goodbye, and she and I walked out through the student center. It was quiet, and I was up so far past my bedtime that lateness rang in my ears, and I shivered with fatigue. I loved SIU’s student center and had always equated it with my imagined adventures of adulthood--learning things from college professors and becoming, oh, a photojournalist. And a forest ranger. I felt a little dazed and wondered how this place of reason, truth, and academic discourse had sustained the visitation I’d just witnessed.
My mom and I glanced at each other at the same moment, and she grinned a little and shook her head. I felt very close to her. We had survived something true together and come out with humor intact.
The truth of the cream sauce came back to me repeatedly on the walk to the car. Outside it was a summer’s night before widespread air conditioning. Stars spun in the sky; the crickets and cicadas sang madly. We rode home in our little white Toyota station wagon, away from Carbondale, past murky Crab Orchard Lake and the National Wildlife Refuge, which hid munitions dumps from the war and a federal prison. Cool humid air rushed in the front windows and out the back. I lay my head on her lap and fell asleep as only a child can, lulled by rocking and the glow from the radio dial, his mother steering him safely home through the dangers of the world.